When she was a kid, back when her visual inspirations largely included The Stinky Cheese Man and her mother’s book of Chinese lullabies, Ping Zhu started visiting art museums with her dad. Zhu had always gravitated toward “bright colors and weird shapes,” and in the museums, she remembers feeling awestruck by the spectrum of what art could look like—it seemed limitless. But the works that really drew her in were the weird ones, the ones that had seemed to hoodwink their way onto the wall, the ones she saw and thought, How did they get away with that? “I’ve always liked a bit of mischievous energy in things,” Zhu says.
That eye for mischief is evident in Zhu’s work now, and even more so when you spend time with the 31-year-old illustrator in person. Funny and sarcastic, self-deprecating and candid, Zhu has a looseness and a very human warmth to her, one that reminds me of the figures she renders so fluidly with paintbrush and gouache.
Some are deeply moving, even sad. Others burst with life. Many are also bitingly funny, a reflection of Zhu’s own sensibilities. There’s the WeTransfer series on believing in yourself, in which a portly corgi triumphs over an agility course with steely-eyed determination as his canine friends cheer him on. There’s the cover she illustrated for digital publication Topic’s animal-themed issue, starring a dachshund in repose, lazily watching wolves in a nature documentary. (If you’re sensing a theme, yes, Zhu is a dog lover, though her subjects are certainly not limited to canids.)
There was also the sketch she did for the horror portion of a New York Times summer book roundup, which didn’t make it to print in precisely that form, but was one of art director Matt Dorfman’s personal favorites from nearly a decade of working with Zhu: a beachgoer on a towel, obliviously sunbathing as a giant vulture pecks away at her back. “She captured something that was so equally horrific and funny, it actually made me aggressively sad that it couldn’t go on the cover,” Dorfman says.
Zhu works out of a high-ceilinged, industrial Brooklyn studio she shares with a painter and a sculptor. On the bookshelf next to her desk, works by Lydia Davis and Simone de Beauvoir share space with kids’ books and compendiums of David Hockney and Olle Eksell. Today, there’s also a scattering of flaky pastries Zhu picked up from a bakery around the corner, which we both snack on while talking about her trajectory, from “a tormented teen wanting to escape” the California suburbs to a professional illustrator whose work has graced New Yorker articles, book covers and brand work from Warby Parker to Reebok to Slack. Of course, quite a lot happened between “tormented teen” and The New Yorker.
At the age of ten, purely at the behest of her mom, Zhu began taking weekend lessons at a Chinese drawing school in her hometown of Arcadia, California. Initially, for Zhu, the classes were just another way to hang out with her friends, but over the years, those friends started leaving drawing school behind. Zhu stuck around. Drawing became not just a way to kill a Saturday afternoon, but something she felt she could become good at, and more importantly, something she felt good while doing.
As high school graduation loomed, Zhu suspected she wouldn’t be following in the footsteps of her parents, both scientists, or those of her peers, who were pursuing traditional academic routes toward traditional careers. Instead, she enrolled in the illustration program at Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design. She remembers hanging up her work for her first critiques and realizing that nearly everyone else’s was better. “I’ve never apologized so much for my work as I did in college,” she says, “which is also where I learned to stop apologizing for my work.”
Zhu explored a few different tracks in illustration, but it wasn’t until enrolling in a class modeled after the New York Times’ Op-Ed section that she discovered the tight turnarounds and challenges of the editorial world. It felt like a constant series of pop quizzes, which Zhu enjoyed. “It was like a crush,” she says, “being able to explore this new thing you really like.”
After graduation, Zhu traveled to New York to review her work with art directors, zigzagging around Manhattan with portfolio and MapQuest directions in tow. The trip yielded her first real assignment, a tiny illustration for the Letters section of the New York Times. When the art was published in the paper, her mom bought a copy. “I remember that so vividly, because it felt like it was all or nothing at that point,” Zhu says. “And all of a sudden, it felt real.”
Zhu launched her freelance career in London, but after a few years of watching percentage points of her paychecks disappear into the ether of international wire transfer fees and currency conversions, she decided to settle in New York City in 2013. She still remembers her first day as an official New York resident—chilly, sunny and at the end of September. Even more memorable, she says, was the warm welcome she received from fellow illustrators in the city, who invited her to their studios, joined her for coffee dates and mostly made her feel like she wasn’t going it alone.
As Zhu rifles through a flat file drawer of her work, I notice a steel rolling cart of gouache tubes and brushes adjacent to the Cintiq on her desk. Zhu’s methods are surprisingly analog. Occasionally, when she has more time to work on a project, she’ll “sketch” with cut paper, which forces her to think in terms of shapes, colors and juxtapositions rather than nitpicking over details. Though she often sketches on her Cintiq, she still paints final illustrations by hand. To ensure uniformity from the digital sketch to the final piece, she swatched different paints and scanned them so she could digitally match the colors, and she did the same for the papers she uses. She does this because she’s meticulous, and because she doesn’t want art directors to have to stretch their imaginations in order to trust that the sketch won’t be completely different from the final product.
When Martha Kennedy, art director at Houghton Miflin Harcourt, began looking for illustrators who could tackle the cover artwork for Hala Alyan’s forthcoming novel, The Arsonists’ City, she reached out to Zhu, whose work she’d seen in the past and bookmarked. She felt that Zhu’s distinctive aesthetic was kindred with Alyan’s voice. “Something about the fluidity and painterly quality of Ping’s work seemed to connect with the poetic form of Alyan’s writing,” says Kennedy.
Though the novel takes place in Beirut across two different time periods, the publisher wanted the artwork to feel universal and timeless while integrating visual references to the title, the characters and the setting itself. After a few early sketches, Zhu and Kennedy landed on their cover: a nighttime scene of a family home seemingly glowing from within, surrounded by almond trees, indistinguishable shadowy figures and a confetti shower of what could be scattered petals or stars or both.
The Times’ Matt Dorfman first reviewed Zhu’s work on that fateful postgrad New York trip years ago, and has been working with her ever since. From the beginning, Dorfman could see a distinctive aesthetic and voice coming through Zhu’s work, and quickly recognized her capability to capture a piece’s “visual heart” succinctly. “There’s a very particular sense of humanism in how she renders the way her figures interact with one another,” says Dorfman. The result, he says, feels both anonymous and hyperpersonal all at once. “I’m not exactly sure how she does it; it’s really incredible.”
In February, Dorfman assigned Zhu the illustration for the Times’ review of Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather. The novel’s narrator grapples with reconciling and navigating the tension between her day-to-day responsibilities and the ever-looming threat of climate change. Zhu’s illustration for the review, ablaze with color, shows a mother and a son carefully tending to flower bulbs in a tiny patch of grass engulfed in flames. The novel is “basically the written equivalent of holding multiple thoughts in your head all the time,” explains Dorfman, “and we had to find a way to say that wordlessly.”
A Times illustration may require a next-day or even same-day turnaround from Zhu. Contrasted with those quick deadlines, her latest project—around three years in the making—feels epic in scale. The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor: A Life, a children’s book written by Amy Alznauer and illustrated by Zhu, was “equal parts challenging and rewarding; bane of my existence and joy of my life,” she says. Compared to her editorial projects, “it felt like going from taking a photo to making a movie.”
Zhu had illustrated a children’s book cover before, for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, but tackling an entire book’s visual narrative was uncharted territory for the artist. There was the pressing sense of feeling intimidated by her own workload, but more importantly, there was the challenge of making the book’s visuals feel like a cohesive story. Zhu remembers thinking, “What is the thread that’s pulling this book together? Of course, there are peacocks and [other] birds involved in it, but I can’t just rely on, like, one blue color to tie the whole book together.”
Zhu’s solution feels like a rare glimpse into the weird and wonderful way in which her brain works. She created what she calls a “color worm.” The serpentine series of paint swatches traces the narrative arc of O’Connor’s life and uses an ever-shifting palette to underscore emotional moments, from the youthful pastels of O’Connor’s childhood to the mournful, deep indigo and muted neutrals of her father’s death to the vivid azures and emeralds signaling the arrival of O’Connor’s beloved peacocks to her estate.
O’Connor holds a duality that fascinates Zhu—the dark moments of the writer’s life alongside the imaginative ones, her day-to-day reality versus the worlds she imagined and built through storytelling. “I wanted to go in and out between her real world and her mind, and between her good moments and darker moments, and make the palette a bit more sophisticated as her life went on,” Zhu explains.
Zhu finally saw the culmination of all that work this summer, when the book hit shelves. I ask Zhu if, after all this time, it feels a little like she’s having a baby. “Oh yeah—a baby that took two years,” she says with a grin. “But any project that’s pushing me in a new direction is rewarding,” she adds. “Otherwise, I’m just going to do the same thing over and over again... and that’s my fear, getting bored.”
After showing me some of her O’Connor sketches, Zhu flips to another project, a pack of whimsical dog-themed playing cards she’s creating with fellow illustrator Daniel Salmieri. She hopes to find a magician with whom to film a promotional video. Boredom doesn’t appear to be coming for her anytime soon. ca